CANBERRA – The Korean War is 68 years old. Despite a ceasefire in effect since 1953, the heavily militarized border is still patrolled by soldiers, ringed with barbed wire and covered in land mines. Almost seven decades of containing, isolating and embargoing North Korea have demonstrably failed. It is time to pause and reconsider. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s dogged optimism and U.S. President Donald Trump’s unconventional diplomacy might be just the synergetic mix required to shake things up.
A diplomatic road map to resolving the nuclear dilemma is required because a permanently nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable in principle, would trigger a proliferation cascade across the region, contains too many grave risks, but cannot be stopped by military means. The pathways to a war include an escalation spiral triggered by the policy of brinkmanship by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Or there could be a variant of the accidental route to a nuclear war imagined by Jeffrey Lewis in The 2020 Commission Report.
A second Korean war would be catastrophic. With only a low probability of success in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear assets, it would entail substantial risks of escalating vertically and horizontally. The death toll could be anything from 30,000 to 25 million dead, depending on the weapons used, the duration of the conflict and the spread to other countries in the region.
The engine driver of the current Korea peace train is Moon. The train has two carriages. The first, inter-Korean relations carriage is racing along at dizzying speed. The second carriage is weighed down with all the baggage of U.S.-North Korea relations. It is almost as if it has its brakes on and is being dragged forward, much against its resistance, by the weight of inertia of the engine and the first carriage.
Under the logic of Trump’s “America First” policy, millions of “them” dead “over there” in the Koreas and Japan may be an acceptable price. This stark reality has driven Moon’s Sunshine Policy 3.0. His aggressive diplomacy was the circuit-breaker in the escalating spiral of threats and counter-threats last year by the two belligerent and volatile leaders Trump and Kim. Moon hosted the Pyeongchang “Peace Olympics” in February. He has held three summits already with Kim, seeking to normalize inter-Korean relations and lower the temperature in U.S.-North Korea relations.
Without public fanfare, Moon has morphed from a U.S. ally into an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington, trying to pre-empt a return to the bellicose statements of 2017 and secure a North Korean commitment to a practical agenda of denuclearization. In February, Moon said: “The United States needs to lower its bar for dialogue and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize.” His senior officials engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington when the two sides were not talking to each other. When Trump angrily canceled the planned June summit with Kim, Moon’s hurried second summit with Kim helped to resurrect it within days.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho insists that “the only realistic means of achieving success” is through “balanced, simultaneous, step-by-step implementation of all terms in the Joint Statement, preceded by the establishment of trust.” But the goodwill from Singapore dissipated rapidly as negotiators ran into the familiar roadblocks of competing demands, conflicting interpretations and confusion over who should take what first steps.
Moon stepped once more into the breach with his third summit with Kim in Pyongyang on Sept. 18-20. On the 17th, Moon explained to his officials that his first goal would be to reduce inter-Korean tension and military confrontation in order “to reduce fears of war.” The second goal was to “find an intersecting point” between the U.S. “call for denuclearization steps and the North’s demand for corresponding steps to guarantee its security and end the hostile relationship” with the U.S. The two legs together would help achieve denuclearization and “irreversible and lasting peace”.
Moon and Kim signed agreements in Pyongyang to reduce military tensions along the border. Military drills close to the DMZ will be halted, 11 armed guard posts inside the DMZ will be dismantled, no-fly-zones will be created along the border banning planes, helicopters and drones, and a maritime peace zone will be created in the West Sea. These are practical measures to constrain military operations that will reduce the risk of an armed clash or a surprise attack.
But the threat of a second Korean war can be removed only with progress in North Korea-U.S. negotiations. Although Trump hailed the Pyongyang Declaration as “very exciting” and has declared his love for Kim, the North’s rhetorical commitment is not matched by a timeline, process or any concrete action. Moon continues to encourage a second Kim-Trump summit as the most productive mechanism to keep chipping away at “the great wall of mistrust” hampering normalization.
For example, the Pyongyang Declaration noted the North’s willingness to undertake, in the presence of “experts from relevant countries,” “the permanent shutdown of the Nyongban nuclear facility” that houses reactors, fissile materials and centrifuges. However, this is contingent upon the U.S. taking “corresponding measures under the spirit of the June 12 North Korea-U.S. joint statement.” The key phrase to be clarified will be what constitutes “corresponding measures.” Will Pyongyang leverage this to confront Trump with the choice between engaging on the North’s terms (Trump stares down his own Cabinet skeptics in order to keep claiming a win), or appearing to be acting in bad faith (National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mikel Pompeo are ascendant)?
At the top of Kim’s wish list are an end to U.S. hostility, the establishment of diplomatic and normalization of economic and political relations, a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and economic and energy assistance to achieve the second leg of his byungjin policy of the parallel pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapon-based national security.
Meanwhile Kim may be consciously modeling his behavior on the Pakistan and India precedent. Having acquired the bomb, retreat below the radar, shun further tests, avoid fresh military provocations, cultivate personal relations with the U.S. president by massaging his outsize ego, but make sure China has your back. Trump tweeted his happiness at the absence of nuclear missiles from the North’s 70th anniversary parade on Sep. 9. He described it as a “big and very positive statement from North Korea” and credited it to his efforts at personal diplomacy with Kim. Moon must have smiled.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.